The Psychology of Employee Retention

A lot of good stuff has been written on employee retention in startups, especially on the tactics part of it.

When I talk to people who leave startups, it comes down to one thing –
People stick in companies as long as they can tell a good story about it. When an employee can’t tell her/ himself and their friends a good story for a while they quit.
It’s basic human nature: we want to tell ourselves and our closest friends/ family the best stories. Stories that make us seem heroic, stories that we are proud of and stories that are unique.

Understanding this psychology as an employer and helping appeal to the basic instinct of storytelling is key to employee retention.

Anything from “my company gives me 20% times off”, “has video games”, “flexible work hours”, “mustache Mondays” “Whiskey Fridays” are all just tactics in trying to help employees tell better stories about the places they work.

What’s interesting is two people in the same company can tell themselves different stories – so stories may not necessarily reflect reality.

(I would argue from my observations that in most cases stories are actually exaggerated than what’s real. Things always seem better or worse than reality.)

There are a few triggers that help with telling better stories, outlining three general ones-
1. Mission/ values/ goals

Some examples that convey good stories – making the gap between internet and computers smaller (Dropbox), world’s largest platform for creative projects (Kickstarter), transforming education by empowering teaching and democratizing learning (Skillshare) . They help everyone believe they are part of something much bigger than themselves.

Another reason why what you do is important for every person in the company to understand.

Everyone in startups wants to change the world in some way or the other. Help people understand what and why you want to impact.
2. Success – There is no other better story than the story of success or the hope of it.

Success breeds hope and loyalty. The moment something is successful or has a really good chance of being successful everyone wants to attach themselves to it. The hope of success is incredibly important.

You have to make sure that at no point the hope of success they want to be part of (even if you’re doubtful) is removed from people’s mind. Even for a second.
3. Perks

Airbnb has Mustache Mondays, some have 20% days, a lot of startups – video games, ping pong tables, even formal dress up days.

These make for a unique story. A unique cult to want to be a part of and more importantly tell people about.

How many times have we heard people talking about the “perks and culture” before their job?

Understanding triggers helps you tell better stories. And looking at your employees and figuring out the good stories they tell themselves and people around them helps understand even more triggers. A lot of them are unique to your culture and your company’s personality.

It’s important not to let go of them.

From tracking to using data

Everyone is tracking data. All kinds of data, if there is anything that’s not being tracked, companies and people sometimes goto extraordinary lengths to make sure we’re tracking everything about the user.

I always hear (and I’m equally guilty of saying these words) – “Omg, we aren’t tracking this data?!!” . And then promptly behave like we’re doomed forever – the data tracking paranoia syndrome. As a result we all spend a lot of time painstakingly tracking everything.

And of course we rarely hear – “Omg, we aren’t using this data?!”.

Looks like this –

Tracking user behavior is easy. Much easier than making decisions around it.

I’m not talking about easy decisions like the color of a button or the layout of a page when we A/B test it. But company strategy and direction  –  the important decisions.

Looks like this –

I’m not saying we use all the data we track. But be more conscious of why we are tracking what we are and how we plan to incorporate it into decisions.

The collecting data to making decisions gap isn’t going to become zero but can definitely be reduced.

Less time tracking, more time making decisions on what we’ve already tracked and understanding how to learn from it.

Growth Hacker – the new “in” thing

There has been considerable debate off late of the Growth Hacker being the new VP of marketing, kicked off by this Andrew Chen blog post.

It looks like it’s on it’s way to be the the next big thing after the “data scientist”.

Data Scientists took off a few years ago. The current state is that most companies, including a lot of startups are hiring data scientists with little knowledge of what to do with them. I’ve had companies admitting they don’t know why they’re collecting the data but they are. Everyone is collecting data. Everyone wants someone to analyze data and everyone either has or wants a data scientist.

The definition of a data scientist one as someone said on my Twitter stream really well is : A person who knows more about software engineering than a statistician and someone who knows more about statistics than a software engineer.

Now let’s come back to the Growth hacker – this is an intersection of technical chops with marketing – as defined in Andrew Chen’s post. It’s the person that understands metrics, can send out email marketing campaigns and  run A/B tests on a fly among other traditional marketing stuff.

Growth hackers  will probably be one of the most in demand jobs in the next few years.

What’s interesting is not just the current growth hacker trend, but how computer science is intersecting with other fields to create new professions.

That’s what the next trend is post the growth hacker. Combine technical / programming skills with something else.

That’s the trend which is going up and will go up – the interdisciplinary applications of technical skills. The gap between computer science and other fields is decreasing, the power goes to people who can understand, combine and execute.

This points to another myth about technical skills. Programming and technical skills are no longer just with the “technical team” – but it’s coming to be more of a form of literacy. You’re the marketer and you know technical skills -it’s going to be more of a rarity to add a Pivotal story if you want to run an A/B test. You’re a statistician and want some data – make some queries to get what you want – that’s what data scientists are capable of. Technology is the medium and all skills are more valuable if we learn to communicate the technical language.

This doesn’t mean the specialists in technology are going away, it points to the generalists in technology will become more valuable.

It’s all about doing it yourself .



Implementing Processes

A few thoughts around implementing processes in groups.

To start process implementation is a fancier way of saying trying out new things to execute a certain goal.

There are two ways to introduce a new process within a group of people.

The first is the autocratic way of process implementation where you say “here is the new process and everyone has to follow it” and then even associate it with some deterrent to make sure it’s implemented.

The perfect example is the act of logging your time and then you don’t get paid if your time is not logged.

This is usually acceptable with everyone when you trust the leaders and there is also room to ask why.

The second is a more democratic form of process implementation. It is showing why the new process makes sense for everyone and getting a degree of buy-in from everyone involved.

In this way people can understand how to align an external process with their own internal processes.

The second is of course preferable but ideallyjust cannot be implemented in all scenarios. A lot of things like HR etc. are sometimes best just conveyed to you.

Additional I’ve come to realize a few things about processes –

1. Any form of structure is usually met with some form of internal resistance

2. A process is as good as it’s adopted. Similar to leadership- as great as the people who follow. No two companies can have identical processes, what works with one set of people may or may not perfectly work with another group.

3. It is best never to be attached to process you’re trying to implement but the outcome you’re trying to achieve.

Do MBA’s love what they’re doing?

I’ve always wondered about this.

Why do people go into management? Is it because they love what they’re doing? How do you even grow to love management?

According to Wikipedia, “business administration” teaches you to become good at various areas of running a business organizing, planning, staffing, directing, controlling and budgeting.

How do you grow to love any of this?

I [extremely] rarely heard in the short time I spent in business school about people loving what they do.

I did meet students curious to learn about business, but very few really passionate people about leading a business in the first place.

It’s hard to find people who totally love what they do. But in the business school it’s way more harder to find those people.

Note – I’m mentally comparing the scenarios from my time at engineering school to the business one, and there would be students who loved building and optimizing stuff in the industrial engineering department but never really found that kind of passion in the students in the business school.

Is the prerequisite for studying management of 2 years of experience in the workforce even help to love management?

I’m coming to the realization that experience is it’s far from a valid assumption.

This post has a lot of unanswered questions.

There are two things I’m curious to understand –

1. What motivates people to go into MBA and 2. How do you make people passionate about management in the first place especially when viewed independent from the domain.

More to come later.